Spence tragedy: Faith sustains as family bids farewell
The bright autumn sunshine seemed incongruous, its light glancing off the three coffins, highlighting the beauty of the orange, red and white floral tributes that sat on top of them.
This was a day when it would have been more appropriate for the heavens to open, for rain to lash down upon thousands of mourners and soak the streets of Ballynahinch. Out of pity. Out of sympathy. Out of pure sorrow.
But no, sunshine.
And, yet as the Spence women said goodbye to their men — Noel (58), Graham (30), and Nevin (22) — yesterday afternoon at the Baptist Church, the bright mid-September day took on a strange appropriateness. For if the Spence family’s grief was palpable, so too was their sustaining faith.
Ahead of the service, a church elder reported that mother Essie, daughters Emma and Laura, and daughter-in-law Andrea, were coping well. He said: “It’s devastating for them but they have strong Christian faith and we know that this is what life is preparing us for.”
Then, the three large coffins of Essie’s husband Noel (58) and her sons Graham (30) and Nevin (22), who died on Saturday trying to save each other from a slurry tank on the family farm, were wheeled in. Nevin’s coffin carried his no 13 Ulster Rugby jersey, a poignant reminder of what was lost.
When Essie, her daughters and immediate family filed in and took their places at the front of the church, there was a collective intake of breath.
The ashen-faced mother was within touching distance of her youngest’s son coffin.
How do you comprehend bereavement on this scale?
When the pastor gave thanks for the fact that Emma’s life had been spared, Essie and Emma were visibly moved.
Yet throughout the lengthy 80-minute service the Spence women, time and again, epitomised the grace and dignity that comes with deep personal faith.
Touchingly, despite her own inner turmoil, Essie was still able to comfort her daughters.
When the story behind the second hymn When Peace, Like A River, Attendeth My Way, written by American Horatio Spafford after he’d lost his son, then his daughters, was announced, she reassuringly stroked daughter-in-law Andrea’s arm.
But when it came to daughter Emma’s intimate and moving — and, yes, amusing — tribute to her lost father and brothers, it was Essie who needed support.
After artist Emma had spoken of her father’s blond hair, her younger brother’s humour and her older brother’s devotion to his children, her mother was deeply moved.
Among this family group was Andrea, who has lost a husband, and whose children, Nathan and Georgia, still under five, lost a daddy.
The Spence men died trying to save and support one another in extremis, and that was exactly what these women did during this Service of Thanksgiving.
They rallied during a rousing chorus, It Is Well With My Soul, exchanging near-hugs and giving words of encouragement.
And afterwards Essie and her family prepared to accompany her men on their final journey to the graveyard. She chatted to the pastor then turned to face the congregation, her face a mask of grief.
As another mother and grandmother said after the Twin Towers fell, ‘grief is the price we pay for love’. The Queen is right, but it costs us dear.